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The Sheehan Boys and Buffalo’s Tammany Hall
An excerpt from Against the Grain, pp. 77-87, 251-252
by Timothy Bohen
Reprinted with permission.
William Sheehan Sr. and his wife Hanora, both from County Cork, Ireland, settled at 422 Elk Street near Alabama Street, where they raised their large family. Their sons John, born in 1848, and William, born in 1859, became two of the most influential New York State politicians of their time.
Their father William was a railroad contractor and engineer who lost a considerable amount of money at the time of the Civil War and was forced to become a day laborer. As a result of the Sheehans’ compromised financial situation, William Sr. put his young boys to work as ferrymen on the Buffalo River to supplement the family income. The boys ferried longshoreman across the Buffalo River to their places of work at the elevators and docks. This experience of hard work along the waterfront, coupled with the boys’ extraordinary ambition and charisma, provided both of them with the tools needed to achieve political success.
After working as a ferryman, John C. Sheehan worked on the waterfront at a marble dock owned by Charles A. Sweet on Illinois Street. One day, a block of marble slipped off a nearby crane, crushing Sheehan’s foot and necessitating the amputation of his leg. Manual labor jobs became impossible for him so he was forced to obtain a clerical position at a local railroad office. Later, after working as a telegraph operator, John studied law and opened a practice on Franklin Street. But politics—and the power that came with it—was his real ambition. With the help of his younger brother they would shape Democratic politics across New York State for several decades.
John was described as tall, rather slender and having grey eyes. Descriptions of his character varied. He was described as having a “gentlemanly character, which readily disarms opponents and wins him hosts of friends.” A New York Times writer, in an article detailing a financial scandal that Sheehan initiated, explained Sheehan’s success in a more sinister manner: “It is no surprise to well-informed persons in Buffalo that he [John C. Sheehan] has exhibited rare abilities to combine office holding with the most scientific and advanced wire pulling, for Buffalo never produced his equal in these regards.”
In the autumn of 1877, at age 29, John was elected comptroller for the city of Buffalo. He held this influential position for four years and was expected to run again; that was until a neophyte politician named Grover Cleveland refused to run on the Democratic ticket with him.
In 1881, Cleveland was a successful lawyer in Buffalo with no interest in running for mayor, but powerful men in the city relentlessly urged him to run. At first Cleveland hesitated, but then he decided he wanted to make a difference by fighting corruption, which was rampant in city politics. A majority of Buffalonians at the time were registered Republicans, while Cleveland was a registered Democrat. Cleveland’s biographer explained the situation this way:
After an intense barrage that he reconsider, Cleveland sent word that he might — not definitely, just might — run if the devious and corrupt Democratic “boss” John C. Sheehan, who was seeking the second-spot office of comptroller, was bounced from the ticket. This posed a problem: Sheehan was the boss of the voter-heavy First Ward, a mostly working-class Irish constituency. Besides he was ringmaster of that year’s nominating circus.
Cleveland knew one of the keys to winning was to carry the Democratic stronghold of the First Ward. He campaigned in the First Ward in saloons night after night in order to win the Irish vote. As a young man, Daniel J. Kenefick, a future state Supreme Court judge, remembered Grover Cleveland campaigning at Charles Diebold’s saloon at 336 Ohio Street near Chicago Street. The portly Cleveland stood on a beer table at Diebold’s and urged those in the First Ward to work with him for municipal reform.
During his mayoral campaign he was testing slogans such as “public officials are trustees of the people” which resonated with folks from the Ward even though many would have benefited from the corrupt graft that flowed from the likes of the Sheehan brothers.
Meanwhile, John Sheehan was so confident that Cleveland would lose, and that the reform movement would fail, that Sheehan removed himself from the ticket per Cleveland’s ultimatum. The Sheehan machine encouraged their loyal friend Timothy J. Mahoney to run for comptroller in place of John Sheehan on the Cleveland ticket. In fact, John Sheehan and his brother William, fellow Democrats with Cleveland, were quietly trying to derail Cleveland’s candidacy by encouraging the Irish to vote for his competitor, Milton Beebe.
Despite the efforts of the Sheehan machine at derailing the Cleveland candidacy, the First Ward Irish voted for Cleveland and he defeated the favored Republican candidate. Interestingly, if the Irish in the Ward had listened to the Sheehan brothers and not voted for Cleveland, then perhaps he would not have been elected mayor of Buffalo or later governor of New York and president of the United States.
Timothy Mahoney won the comptroller job and he quickly discovered the shocking surprise that his friend John Sheehan had left office with $5,900 of city money missing. After a series of missteps to cover up his embezzlement of city monies, and with efforts to repay it more complicated, it was increasingly clear that John Sheehan needed a fresh start. So in 1885, he moved to New York City and immediately immersed himself in Tammany Hall politics, which was the primary engine for political advancement for Irishmen in New York City.
This former First Warder quickly rose up in the Tammany leadership and was selected as Police Commissioner of New York City in 1892; despite the fact that he was an outsider and many were aware of his financial scandal in Buffalo because of stories in the New York Times.
In 1895, after only ten years in New York City politics, Sheehan rose to the all-powerful position as the leader of Tammany Hall, a title that he shared with powerful men like William Tweed, John Kelly, and Charles F. Murphy. He served in this capacity for two years until Richard Crocker, the previous leader, returned from Ireland to retake control of Tammany Hall.
Even though Sheehan’s reign only lasted for two years, it was an unlikely feat for an outsider from the First Ward of Buffalo to gain the top position of this infamous political machine. In 1899, John Sheehan, longing for the previous control he had over New York City politics, engaged in a power struggle to pry the reigns of Tammany back from Richard Crocker; but he was ultimately defeated.
He kept his hands in politics running his district for many years and rejoined Tammany Hall in 1905. With the help of his younger, more astute brother William he continued to shape New York State politics for years to come.
John’s younger brother, William “Blue-Eyed Billy” Sheehan, was born on Elk Street on November 6, 1859, and his political fortunes eventually eclipsed John’s. William had learned the art of politics from his older brother and because of his tutelage he achieved fame even more quickly than his able brother.
As a young boy, Billy supplemented the family income working as a newsboy on the busy streets of Buffalo and also as a ferryman on the Buffalo River. After clerking at his brother’s law firm, Tabor and Sheehan at 83 Franklin Street in Buffalo, William was elected to the New York State Assembly as a representative of the First Ward at the unusually young age of twenty-six.
“Blue-Eyed Billy” served in the assembly from 1885 to 1891and as the leader of the Democratic Party for five of those years. Then, in 1891, he was elected to the powerful position of speaker of the New York State Assembly, which would not have been an easy task due to the powerful influence of New York City politicians compared to those from the rest of the state.
In a Harper’s Weekly article during the 1891 election, the writer credited Sheehan’s success with the fact that he “was a born parliamentarian, a well-equipped debater, an earnest and vigorous speaker, and an uncompromising partisan.” Throughout his tenure, William Sheehan continued to secure funds for Buffalo’s harbor, as well as patronage jobs, and this endeared him to his constituents.
In 1892, at only age 33, he was the youngest lieutenant governor of New York in history. Sheehan was twice considered for the position of U.S. senator from New York, a position appointed by the state legislature at that time. On November 11, 1892, in an article profiling the various candidates, the New York Times described William Sheehan as “young, ambitious, aggressive, and [he is] proud of the victory the party won under his management.” Although he was an exciting candidate, it wasn’t his time and the legislature chose someone else.
Throughout the years, Sheehan’s prestige across the state increased. In 1911, when a new opportunity came up to select a U.S. senator from New York, “Blue-Eyed Billy” Sheehan had positioned himself as the inevitable candidate. Sheehan was the leading candidate in the caucuses, but, more importantly, he was the choice of the presiding Tammany boss, Charles F. Murphy.
On December 30, 1910, the New York Times claimed that because of Sheehan’s work getting the Democratic majority elected in the New York State legislature, many legislators felt Sheehan’s reward was the open senate seat. The writer claimed that, “the consensus of opinion expressed at the Capitol is that Mr. Sheehan has a better chance than any other candidate now in the field.” Indeed, it was finally Sheehan’s time. However, a young and feisty New York state legislator, desiring a reform of the Democratic Party, successfully blocked “Blue-Eyed Billy” Sheehan’s seemingly inevitable candidacy. That state legislator was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The twenty-nine-year-old Roosevelt objected to the fact that William Sheehan was the candidate endorsed by the corrupt Tammany Hall faction of the Democratic Party; Roosevelt demanded a reform candidate. Conrad Black, one of Roosevelt’s biographers, described Sheehan in the way Roosevelt would have viewed him: as “a smooth but corrupt political roué.” After Roosevelt rallied twenty-one Democratic legislators to oppose Sheehan, including Buffalo’s Frank Loomis, the seemingly inevitable candidate resorted to threats and political rallies in an attempt to silence Roosevelt and the rest of the opposition. Roosevelt, however, was not intimidated and he was able to hold the opposition together; Sheehan’s candidacy was now on life-support.
On February 14, 1911, on a stormy night with near-blizzard conditions, Sheehan staged a lackluster hometown rally in Buffalo in front of 2,000 attendees at Convention Hall. The desperate Sheehan was trying to appeal to two of the local legislators who had joined the Roosevelt camp in opposing his candidacy. William passionately exclaimed to the crowd: “Thirty-five years of my life were spent with you. You saw me enter political life with everything a young man desires except money. You saw me leave it ten years later with nothing but political scars.” But his message didn’t create much excitement and some of the only enthusiasm from the rally occurred before he even spoke when cheers of “First Ward, First Ward” were heard throughout the hall. The lackluster rally in his hometown was symbolic of the unraveling enthusiasm for his candidacy across the state. Eventually he was forced to capitulate and withdraw his name from consideration. Roosevelt had won.
Sheehan returned to his prosperous law career in New York City and enjoyed a purported multi-million dollar fortune which was primarily earned from his law practice and perhaps a little graft. Another Buffalo lawyer, John Lord O’Brian, explained that “[Sheehan] was looked upon as a man who made a fortune as a lawyer out of his political connections.” Sheehan represented the large corporate interests in New York such as utility companies and profited from the contacts he made in his earlier years in government.
- Pp. 77-87
So what eventually happened to the Sheehan brothers?
On February 9, 1916, at the age of sixty-seven, John C. Sheehan, who was leading the prosperous life of a lawyer, collapsed in his office at 253 Broadway in New York City and later died. He was survived by his wife and four children and was buried outside of New York City.
On March 14, 1917, only a year after the death of his older brother John, William “Blue-Eyed Billy” Sheehan succumbed to kidney disease while living in Manhattan. Sheehan’s body, unlike his brother’s, was brought back to Buffalo for burial in Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna, New York just a few miles from where he grew up.
Interestingly, both men were thwarted from higher political office by two future U.S. presidents: Grover Cleveland ended John Sheehan’s promising future in Buffalo; and Franklin Roosevelt prevented William from obtaining his coveted U.S. Senate seat. Cleveland and Roosevelt were both reformers and neither liked the brand of politics that the Sheehan boys had perfected in the First Ward. For three decades, the two charismatic Sheehan brothers from Elk Street left an indelible mark on Democratic politics in Buffalo, New York City, and across New York State.
- P. 87
As for the legion of politicians that the Ward produced throughout the years, William “Blue-Eyed Billy” Sheehan probably had the most influence of them all on politics in the Ward, New York State, and the nation. Still he is largely unknown in his hometown.
Sheehan’s machine politics were often vilified at the time, rightly so. But many hundreds, if not thousands, of people have him to thank for improving their lot in life. His prominent memorial, built by McDonnell & Sons, in Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna, is the last vestige of this important political figure.
Billy’s older brother, John C. Sheehan, who left Buffalo after an embezzling scandal, has rightfully been forgotten, but his short leadership of New York City’s Tammany Hall deserves some local recognition—a marker or plaque in front of the old Sheehan’s homestead on Elk Street (South Park Avenue) would be an appropriate recognition for these two former Buffalo River ferrymen.
- Pg. 251-252